Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Take on the WBTS

Confederate history has been in the news lately thanks to Virginia's proclamation that April is Confederate History Month and the omission of slavery in the original proclamation. The governor of Virginia knew what he was doing. Even though he apologized for his "mistake", everybody knows where his heart really is. Slavery was bad. Nudge nudge wink wink.

Now folks are arguing about how we should feel about the Confederacy and what the Confederacy was all about. My confederate bona fides are as good as anyone's. I'm the direct descendant of at least eight Confederate veterans and the indirect descendant of many more. There's not a single Union soldier in my family tree. I am interested in the history of the time and the role my family played in it and how we were impacted by it.

Only one of my Confederate ancestors owned any slaves. The rest were poor farmers or tradesmen who worked their own land or plied their own trade without the help of enslaved persons. I don't aim to piss on the graves of my ancestors, and I don't aim to attribute grand motives to them. Each had his own reasons for fighting. Some were conscripted. Others responded to the call to defend their state in the same way that so many bastards have been duped throughout human history. At least one of them was probably defending the institution of slavery by which he profited. Every one of them would have been better off if he hadn't been involved in the war. The South should have stayed in the Union and argued the point about slavery through legitimate processes. If abolition resulted, then the South should have manned up and accepted it. I like to imagine that my ancestors would have been on board with something like that rather than tearing their country apart.

I doubt that any of them gave a second thought to tariffs or abstract constitutional arguments. The war was not of their making. They were caught up in it as pawns of powerful elites. What the war was "about" for each of them we can no longer say. In a larger historical sense, the war was about defending the right of people to own other people and about the fundamental structure of the United States of America. The pro-slavery side lost. The concept of the US as a loose confederation of sovereign states also lost.

Those who advocate a system of state sovereignty with a weak federal government should perhaps avoid coupling their argument with an apparent nostalgia for slavery. There's nothing inherently immoral about the idea of such a government structure, and it ought to be discussed on its merits. And forget about turning back the clock and revising the interpretation of the Constitution that has prevailed for a century and a half. If we want a weak federal government with strong states, we'll need a new constitution or some radical amendments. The idea should be put to the political test for what it is, a radical rethinking of the structure of the government.

States' "rights" has been so often deployed in the context of the reprehensible (slavery, Jim Crow) that it has become almost universally recognized as code for racism. That's what Reagan meant when he talked about respecting states' rights in 1980. He was appealing to disaffected southern voters still angry over civil rights legislation. The GOP is still engaged in this "Southern Strategy". They poison discussion about the concept of decentralization by coupling it with reactionary and authoritarian ideas.

Let's stop talking about the frakking WBTS, and start talking about decentralization on its own merits. Moreover, let's discuss it pragmatically and accept ad arguendo that some things are more appropriate for decentralization than others. Let's talk about it in the context of actual policies and issues that matter today and forget about what the government was like in 1840 or what the Founding Fathers would have preferred. They're dead, and it's the living who will have to contend with our constitutional arrangements.

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